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Common Questions from Detainees
Tuesday, January 22, 2008

MIra Loma Detention Facility in Lancaster, Calif. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)

"I don't have a lawyer. I have a court date soon! What can I do?"

Unlike cranial courts, there is no 'public defender' for non-citizens in immigration courts. It is possible and likely for someone to seek relief from removal and go through the process without a lawyer. Studies confirm that an asylum seeker will have a better chance of success if he/she has a lawyer. There may be a local nonprofit legal organization that offers pro bono (free) legal representation to eligible detained immigrants, and sometimes local attorneys will provide pro bono assistance. In some detention centers, these agencies work together to meet and screen all newly arrived detained immigrants. Look for a list of such agencies in the detention center, online, or contact a local lawyer who may know or the local bar association for names of immigration attorneys (or see a list of many below). Individuals in detention should be able to make free telephone calls to potential lawyers, but may need a volunteer's help finding a list of possibilities and doing some initial research that requires the internet. lt will be up to your group to determine your policy in regards to this issue. Regardless, all volunteers should have a cursory knowledge of resources in order to best inform and help detained immigrants should they have this question.

These organizations may also be helpful to you:

Justice for Our Neighbors: Free legal assistance -, (240) 450-1186

American Immigration Lawyers Association: Network of immigration lawyers

American Bar Association Commission on Immigration

The National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild

American Civil Liberties Union

“I haven’t seen my lawyer in weeks and I can’t speak to him/her on the telephone! Why won’t she/he come see me?!”

Attorneys are often strapped for time. From the detained immigrants' perspective, their cases do not move as quickly as they would like them to. Many individuals in detention do not understand that oftentimes their lawyer can best help them from their office and not necessarily by visiting them. Encourage the detained immigrant to continue to call their lawyer’s office and leave messages, especially if the call is in regard to previously undisclosed information regarding the detained immigrant's asylum claim. It is also suggested that the volunteer can help by calling and reminding the lawyer of the detained immigrant's need to see him/her. Sometimes just knowing that someone else is interested in a detained immigrant's case can prompt a faster response from a lawyer.

“I don’t feel well. I saw the doctor-they didn’t help-and don’t know what’s wrong.”

Immigrants often complain about the medical services in detention. Often the complaints hinge on lack of communication. Encourage the detained immigrant to submit written requests to seek medical attention and to keep copies of these requests. The clinics inside the detention centers have access to telephonic interpreters but seem to rarely use them (perhaps to save time and money). Tell the individual in detention to insist on having an interpreter over the telephone when they visit with the doctor. The volunteer can write a note for them to take to the doctor which says, “I don’t understand. I would like an interpreter over the telephone.” You can also document the detained immigrant's stories for advocates to use in bringing the case up with the detained immigrant’s lawyer, the detention center administration, or even government representatives to press for better medical attention in the facility.

This document has been adapted from the Detention Watch Network’s Visiting Immigrants in U.S. Detention Facilities